(The first part of this narrative is here)
The degree of devotion required of wolverine biologists in the service of gaining knowledge would put the most pious of religious adherents to shame. En route to Montana along the deserted dead-of-night roads, Jason told stories of his previous years directing field operations for the Absaroka-Beartooth Project – tales of crossing Yellowstone on snowmobile to reach a capture site while the roads were closed, performing the collaring operation, and then turning around and snowmobiling back, narrowly avoiding collisions with bison and wolves in the dark; tales of six-hour searches for dens in icy sleet with no real clue where the den might be (they found it); tales of sticking his head into dens without any assurance that the mother wolverine wasn’t inside (she was); tales of broken ribs in snowmobile maintenance mishaps; many, many tales of having to sacrifice time with his family in order to be in the field doing things that no one else was able to do, so that we might learn what a wolverine was eating, or whether or not she was denning.
When I first met Jason, in March of 2006, he and his wife were running a research trapping operation, living in a remote cabin in Sunlight Basin, Wyoming, with their two-year-old daughter. Kate, his wife, was eight months pregnant; on the day I met her she told me she was headed out to ski up a pass to look the carcass of a skinned mountain lion that some hunters had killed the day before. ‘Intimidated’ doesn’t begin to describe the feeling that this family evoked. I thought they were crazily obsessed. But within six months I was paying my own tithes to the quest for wolverine data – I became so sick on my first wolverine trek that I could hardly walk, and spent a night on the cold ground in the middle of the wilderness at 11,000 feet – and finding myself in a truck laden with capture supplies, driving through a snowstorm along deserted roads at 2:00 in the morning, seemed a natural evolution. Once you’re hooked, you’re really hooked.
We arrived in Montana at 2:30 in the morning, slept for three hours, and were up and boiling water for the hot water bottles by 6:00. At 7:00, equipment packed and requisite eight layers of insulating clothing donned, we headed to the snowmobiles, and by 7:30 we were at the trap, where two members of the field crew, in another act of dedication, had spent the night camped out in the snowstorm to make sure that F3 was okay.
Unlike her placid companion M57, F3 was in full gulo mode from the moment she heard us approach. That indescribable, spine-tingling growl rumbled up from the trap before we even lifted the lid. When we knelt down to peer into the trap, she paced and growled, rushing the opening and our flashlights, drool trailing from her bared teeth. She was smaller than M57, but about ten times as ferocious. She strode between the back wall of the trap and the entrance, lunged, bit the flashlight (three dents; paint scraped clean off), paced to the back wall, and began tearing a piece of bait to shreds, keeping an eye on us as if to make sure we witnessed this demonstration of her ability to demolish anything she chose. In 2007, F3 chewed her way out of a log box trap through six inches of solid wood. We took the point, and lowered the lid to prepare the drugs.
By 8:40, she was out, and Jason lifted her from the trap and placed her gently onto the prepared bed of hot water bottles. The first and most pressing question was definitively answering whether she had given birth, and we combed quickly through the fur of her belly. Smooth, flat, teats so indistinct that we had trouble locating them. F3 had not had kits. She might have been pregnant earlier in the year, but wolverines mate in spring and summer and hold the fetuses in suspension until winter, when they know whether there are adequate resources for raising kits; if so, the fetuses implant and the wolverine will give birth. If not, the fetuses are resorbed into the female’s body and she waits for a better year.
F3 is probably about four years old, which is just on the cusp of reproductive age. We know for sure that M57 was in her territory during the summer breeding period, and all winter we’ve had conversations – we’ve practically broken out champagne and cigars – speculating about the addition of two new baby wolverines to the Greater Yellowstone population. Documenting any reproduction in a rare species is cause for excitement, but in this case, understanding by what routes and to where the kits would disperse could provide valuable clues to understanding the overall population dynamics of Rocky Mountain wolverines. The failure of these kits to materialize is disappointing, but it raises some interesting questions. Did F3 and M57 mate but resources prove too slim to support a mother and babies? If so, why? We suspect that F3 herself was born in the Absarokas, which means that the range is capable of supporting a reproductive female and her offspring. Was the lack of snow this year a problem?
Alternatively, a quick first glance at the genetics suggests that F3 and M57 could be closely related, even though he was first picked up in a field in Idaho, hundreds of miles from his current location. He and F3 share enough DNA to be father and daughter (unlikely, given that we suspect that they are roughly the same age), uncle and niece, or brother and sister. After his release in the Centennials, M57 made a pretty quick and decisive trip to his current location in the Absarokas – was he returning to known territory, a territory that he couldn’t previously occupy because his father was still resident? And if so, do wolverines have some sort of incest taboo that precludes mating with a close relative?
On the other hand, given their relative degrees of ferocity, perhaps M57 – related or not – simply decided that trying to get friendly with F3 was too much of a risk (maybe that’s what happened to his missing toes?)
F3 weighed in at 8.5 kilos. Her mask and lateral stripe were more distinct than M57’s had been. Her teeth were in perfect shape, all her toes accounted for, her coat thick. She had a few fleas – the field crew spent some time tracking them through her fur and herding them into tiny plastic vials, to be sent for analysis – but was otherwise in excellent shape. We took vitals every five minutes, and with a steady temperature of around 102°F, she was doing well.
Jason had a hard time adjusting the collar because F3’s neck was so small, but there was still time afterward to attempt to take blood. Jason and the field crew jabbed around with a needle for about five minutes but, unable to locate a vein, eventually gave up. We were quickly approaching the 40 minute mark – the moment when she would, supposedly, begin to come out of the drug haze – but Jason had dosed her for 9 kilos, which meant that we had a little extra time. She remained so soundly out of it that we had time to pass her gently from hand to hand to take photos. Wolverines are slippery, their skin seems loosely attached, and when I gripped her by the scruff and tried to lift her, she seemed to fall. I had the same feeling I get with babies, namely that I’m about to drop and injure something that I probably shouldn’t be holding in the first place.
Reversal drugs injected, we put her back in the trap, where she remained utterly motionless long enough for us to open the lid and take more photos of her stretched out on the ground. Jason went back to the trap to check on her several times. Handling wild animals is always nerve wracking because no matter how careful you are, there’s a risk that something might happen. Within a few minutes, however, she was moving, so we shut the lid and sat down in the snow to wait the requisite two hours.
A daylight collaring operation offered a rare opportunity to catch some good photos and video, so before we opened the trap, we stationed three people with still and video cameras at different angles to the trap entrance. I was crouched behind a tree and a snow bank a few yards in front the trap, hoping that she would run by me. The lid creaked up, and a few seconds passed, and then, like a periscope, the collar antenna emerged, followed by F3’s head. We had waited for about ten minutes for M57 to leave the trap; F3 took one look at freedom and then she poured out of the trap’s mouth and, in a blur of snow, streaked towards me. I didn’t realize it until I looked at the photos and videos later, but she actually headed directly towards me before catching sight of me and then veering to the left, around me, and then off into the woods. She took about five seconds to disappear.
That was it, the culmination of the trapping season. While waiting for F3 to come out of the drugs, the field crew had taken down the hanging bait and snowmobiled to the other nearby traps to prop them open. We’d tossed pieces of beaver carcass and roadkilled elk into the woods for the enjoyment of the martens, the hungry emerging bears, and, hopefully, for F3 and M57. Once F3 disappeared into the trees, we propped open that trap, took down the automatic camera, and hauled out all the extraneous pieces of the trapping operation.
There was something bittersweet about driving back to Jackson, stopping in Mammoth to drop off a collection of items that had been on loan from Yellowstone to the Project. Officially, 2009 was the last year that the Absaroka-Beartooth Project was funded in association with Yellowstone. But with instrumented animals on the air, it would be a wasted opportunity not to continue monitoring. With the urgency of the field season at an end, the lull between research trapping and my upcoming trip to Mongolia to look for wolverines there will be occupied with a search for grants and private money to keep track of F3 and M57 next year. Meanwhile there are many important, looming questions about wolverine conservation and even, possibly, recolonization of Colorado, the answers to which will be partially provided by studying the populations in southern Montana and in Wyoming. Jason reflected that he felt it was the end of an era, but I hope that it’s simply a transition to a new set of research questions about an animal that will – if we can answer those questions – expand our understanding of what needs to be done to protect the montane ecosystems of the West.
(A video of F3’s capture and release may follow, so check back.)